At Least They Caught Them

Strategypage reports that someone was caught trying to sell nuclear material….

“Ukrainian police arrested three men trying to sell eight pounds of plutonium, for $10 million. It turned out that they did not have plutonium, but the less radioactive (and not suitable for nuclear weapons) Americium (which could be used for a dirty bomb). The three arrested (a politician and two businessmen from Western Ukraine) had obtained the radioactive material (which was originally produced inside Russia) from someone outside Ukraine.”

Seems this happens on a fairly regular basis.

The essay goes on to discuss how much nuclear material is floating around out there. It is unlikely that terrorists could cobble together a nuclear bomb, but a dirty bomb is certainly something within their capabilities.

Just thought I’d brighten up your Monday.

7 thoughts on “At Least They Caught Them”

  1. > but a dirty bomb is certainly something within their capabilities.

    The real thing here is two-fold, though.

    1) Terrorists don’t really go in for making “distant threats” — They want big and spashy. Telling a bunch of people that, “Thanks to them, your chances of getting cancer in the next 30 years are up by 3%” is not a particularly effective act on their parts.

    2) The real risks of a dirty bomb could hardly be any worse than the results of being near Chernobyl, which is a clear and obvious real-world example of the worst a dirty bomb could actually do. It says a lot about the true, actual risks of radiation when you look into it and find out that the health risks induced by the FEAR and ANXIETY of living in the fallout zone is greater than the actual risk of cancer FROM the excess radiation in the area.

    In short, while I certainly would not be happy if a dirty bomb went off, the hysteria that resulted, both overt and subtle, would probably do far more harm than the bomb.

    Probably more lives have been lost to “anaphylactic shock” due to hearing the word “radiation” than have actually died from exposure to it. :oP

  2. Tatyana, OBH…

    A large number of lives lost in Chernobyl were due to firefighters trying to fight a fire in the melted-down core without any radiation-protective gear.

    A second tier of radiation-caused deaths were locals who were not warned, and did not evacuate because authorities did not tell them that they were in danger.

    Eventually, everyone was evaucated, and an exclusion zone was set up. Roads in/out are blocked, I think with active guard-towers. Sometimes, tour groups travel through, and can handle the temporary elevated exposure by avoiding the worst hot-spots and keeping their Gieger counters active.

    (For fun, google “motorcycle ride through Chernobyl”. There was a Russian woman who claimed to have done a solo trip through the exclusion zone on her motorcycle. It is easier to believe that she went with a tour group, her motorcycle gear, and a camera…but that is immaterial to the main point, photographic evidence of what the Chernobyl zone looks like now. I first saw the site in 2004, but I believe that it is still available somewhere online.)

    At any rate, there are areas which are safe to travel through, but not safe to live in…for some level of “safe”, which probably includes avoiding more than a day of the dosage of radiation available in the area.

    There are also areas of elevated-but-not-likely-fatal radioactivity near Chernobyl.

    The typical efficiency and accuracy of the Soviet (later Russian) gov’t leads me to wonder whether the radiation-zones are mapped properly, and whether the risk of dying from various diseases are properly measured. However, I am fairly certain that the area around the Chernobyl plant is most decidedly not safe for human habitation now, and likely will not be safe for human habitation for a century or more.

    Whether a dirty-bomb could recreate that is a separate question.

  3. Tatyana,

    would you please point out the sources of your assertion or relative risks in Chernobyl zone.

    From the World Health Organization:

    A total of up to 4000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.

    As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004.

    So Chernobyl was on the scale of other large manmade technological disasters such as industrial accidents, damn failure etc. The 30-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl has become a wildlife haven.

    Habitability is a perceptual concept. Chernobyl won’t be “habitable” in the sense of presenting no special health risk following long term occupation for 30 years or so. However, even today, you would be better off having a developed world standard of living in Chernobyl than you would be as a poor person in any city in the developing world. Cancer when your 55 beats the hell out of fatal dysentery at 5.

  4. Shannon:
    I lived 200km from Chernobyl when the disaster happened. My son was (-)4 months old. I knew people, in my circle of friends and acquaintances, who died shortly after. You could say the topic was kind of special interest to me.

    Zone around Chernobyl is important to monitor, but there is also spots on the map as far away as Poland and Belorussia, where until now it is prohibited to pick up mushrooms in the woods. The level of radiation and consequences of it there were sometimes higher than 50km to the epicenter @Chernobyl. The distribution was affected by meteorological factors.

    The comparison should not be between “any city in the developing world” where dysentery at 5 is a norm and a level of Chernobyl standard, but by a level in Chernobyl before-and-after.

  5. While it would require the time preference of terrorists to shift dramatically, a well-constructed and -placed dirty bomb could kill and sicken far more people than the Chernobyl accident, while simultaneously devastating the cultural patrimony (eg museum artifacts) in its vicinity. Maybe we’ll get lucky and a small one that doesn’t cause too much destruction will force the development of really good mitigation strategies.

  6. Eighteen radioisotopes of americium have been characterized, with the most stable being 243Am with a half-life of 7370 years, and 241Am 432.2 years. All of the remaining radioactive isotopes have half-lives that are less than 51 hours, and the majority of these have half-lives that are less than 100 minutes.

    Twenty radioactive isotopes of plutonium have been characterized. The longest-lived are Pu-244 with a half-life of 80.8 million years, Pu-242 373,300 years, Pu-239 24,110 years, Pu-240 6537 years, and Pu-238 87.74 years. All of the remaining radioactive isotopes have half-lives that are less than 15 years.

    Pu-238 is used for “nuclear batteries” by NASA on deep space missions.

    Americium is fissile; the critical mass for an unreflected sphere of 241Am is approximately 60 kilograms, considerably larger than that of plutonium or uranium.


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